By Michael H. Margolin
In a career that lasted from 1965 (“Flora, the Red Menace”) until 2010 (“The Scottsboro Boys”), John Kander and Fred Ebb made Broadway history with “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and “The Kiss of the Spider Woman”. Meadow Brook Theatre has chosen for its final production of the season their 1971 show, “70, Girls, 70” (not the amount, but the ages), and while it may not live up to some of its illustrious siblings, it has, among its 16 songs, some six or eight or 10 that would be worth hearing again.
Travis W. Walter, Meadow Brook’s artistic director and the adroit director of the show, has done it, and us, a favor, not only by reviving the musical but by casting these absolutely first rate singing/dancing actors from around Southeastern Michigan.
The plot – which is like a plain wire hanger to hang the fine fabric of the score on – involves aged, retired actors who, led on by the intrepid Ida, steal fur coats in order to buy the seedy hotel they live in and turn it into a first class retirement home for indigent actors.
Need to know more? I doubt it; for although it has gone through many versions and revisions, according to Walter, the first act begins slowly and the gimmick is, well, rather lame. Still, when you let loose a batch of talents who sing like stars and move like thoroughbreds, never mind the limp book by Ebb and Norman L. Martin, based on Peter Coke’s 1958 play “Breath of Spring.”
Ida, played with panache by Mary Robin Roth, is the leader of the pack, convincing her old buddies to join in her harebrained – or furbrained – wheel-and-steal game. When she enters, she exudes energy, and the others come up to her level. And form the gang.
She has the good luck to be handed two of the finer songs, “Old Folks” and the hilarious “The Elephant Song,” which barely touches on the plot but was sung with such a sense of the ridiculous and the sublime that an encore would not be amiss. Consider that, Travis.
Everyone else could be considered supporting cast, but each has his or her own great vocal moments: The incredible Paul Hopper, who has played character parts and Shakespearean leads, has a patter song reprised in the second act, and he comes as close as possible to vaudeville.
The show is rather vaudevillian, and choreographer Tyrick Wiltez Jones has mined the vaudeville/musical hall dance repertoire to come up with some dandy moves for the old timers who dance with grace and aplomb.
I particularly enjoyed the edge that Tamara Anderson brought to Melba, one of the two waitresses in the cafe attached to the hotel. She has a big, gutsy voice and moves like a gazelle. In her wonderful number “Believe,” she made me…believe. (Her waitress partner in crime – yes, they join the “gang” – was Fritzi, played by the excellent Judy Dery.)
Ruth Crawford plays several roles (as do the fine Henry Nelson, Tobin Hissong and Hugh Maguire), but taps into the vintage message of the show – love and respect older folks – as Grandma. She steps away from her granny walker to tap and trill “Go Visit Your Grandmother,” another high point in the show. (The bright-eyed Eddie, the bellboy, played with juvenile fervor by Joseph Feldmann, joins in the duet with Crawford and displays one of those musical comedy tenor voices with ringing top notes.)
Trudy Mason brings an innocent charm and a helluva hot shimmy to the role of Eunice, and as the tall and dignified Gertrude, Candice Coleman turns dignity into diggety-dog with her rendition of “See the Light.” Clair E. Kaiser and James Busam fill out the admirable ensemble.
I have given kudos to the thrice-monikered choreographer – consider this a reprise – but others stand high in the pantheon of talent: Costume designer Elizabeth Moore seems to have nailed the colors, combinations and style of the late ’80s and found that glorious black boa that Ida carouses with like an erotic partner in the “Elephant” song and the outrageous final costume for Ida as she lofts above the stage as a kind of Goldwyn girl as a glimmering silver pie plate.
Kristen Gribbin’s very good set design allows the maximum flow from scene to scene; Reid G. Johnson, usually the most supple of lighting designers, has allowed some dark spots in an otherwise good lighting design – especially the use of spotlights, and flashlights and police lights and on and on. Stacy White’s conducting was first-rate, and the excellent band of eight was off-stage but, unlike children, better heard than seen.
Near the end, engraved on a large plaque is the hotel’s new name, The Princess Ida, which happens to be an operetta by two other great musical partners: Gilbert and Sullivan. Wink, wink.
’70, Girls, 70′
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through June 23. 2 hours, 20 minutes. $31-40. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com